By Dr Laura Markham
“Dr. Laura….I just want to give my kids a better start in life than I had. How can I make sure they’re self-disciplined but happy?”
All of us want to raise children who become self-disciplined — and happy — adults. The only question is how best to do that. Luckily, we know a lot of the answers. Research studies have been following children from babyhood to adulthood for decades, so we actually know much of what works to raise great kids.
Here are five of the most important things we know.
1. Children learn to love from a secure attachment with at least one loving adult.
Parents facilitate this secure attachment in the first year by listening to their unique baby and responding to her needs. They continue to nurture secure attachment by accepting the full range of who their child is — including all that messy neediness and anger — into the toddler years and throughout childhood and the teen years. Parents who are unable to tolerate their child’s neediness, or who control (rather than accepting the child as he is), are intrusive (rather than taking the child’s cues), or otherwise react out of their own needs rather than responding to their child’s needs are less likely to raise a securely attached child.
This close relationship is what motivates kids to cooperate and to accept their parents’ rules and role-modeling. Without that bond, parents lose their influence as soon as children begin interacting with peers, because kids are looking to satisfy those unrequited needs via their peers.
Do you have to “attachment parent” to raise a securely attached child? No. Estimates are that before parents in the US began using what we think of as attachment practices (baby-wearing, co-sleeping, nursing), about 60% of toddlers were still securely attached. It’s the parent’s emotional responsiveness that determines security of attachment. Of course, many parents say that attachment practices increase their responsiveness, which the research is beginning to confirm, at least for baby-wearing.
2. Children learn self-discipline from limits with empathy.
Kids who are raised without limits don’t get many opportunities to practice self-discipline, so they don’t necessarily learn to be considerate of others or to manage themselves through unpleasant tasks — which is why permissive parenting can raise undisciplined kids. (For more on the drawbacks of permissive parenting.)
BUT — and this is a big BUT — if the limits are imposed in a way that provokes resistance (“Don’t you sass me, young lady!”), the child still doesn’t learn self-discipline, because she doesn’t internally accept the limit. So when a limit is perceived as harsh or unfair, kids don’t actually learn self-discipline, which is why authoritarian parenting raises kids who ultimately can’t manage themselves without outside discipline (and are more susceptible to peer pressure). All punishment undermines self-discipline. (Did you really think he was sitting on the naughty step taking responsibility and considering how to be a better kid? He was reviewing why he was justified in his behavior and plotting revenge, like any normal human!) (For more on the drawbacks of strict parenting.)
When limits are imposed with empathy:
“I see you’re mad! Shoes are not for throwing, no matter how mad you are… Tell me in words!”
…kids may not like the limit, but they don’t get stuck in resistance. They feel understood, supported, connected. That connection makes them willing to live with the limit, especially if parents also accept their upset about the limit. She builds more self-discipline every time she stops herself from going after what she wants because there’s something she wants even more — a good relationship with you.
What’s more, she learns that she can’t always get her way, but she gets something better: someone who loves her exactly as she is. This unconditional positive regard becomes the core of unshakable positive self-esteem and stable internal happiness. (For more on setting limits with empathy.)
3. Children learn to self-soothe by being soothed by parents.
That’s because the neural pathways that release soothing biochemicals are formed when the baby is soothed by the parent. Leaving little ones alone with their big emotions does NOT teach them to self-soothe; it makes it harder for them to calm themselves throughout their lives. Children who are explosive, anxious, or “dramatic” need extra support in the form of parental calming (as well as safe opportunities to show us their emotions, see #4 below). The skill of self-soothing is essential for children to learn to manage their anxiety, emotions and behavior.